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The Colour Conundrum
By David Crowther

Why do we need colour management? Many have asked this question before, many still do and many are continuing to ask, "How can I just get it to look right or correct?"

For me the answer is quite simple, you need to set up and maintain a colour management system (CMS).I can hear you now, "We have heard all this before!" or "Oh no, not again" or "I have to shell out more money into the bottomless colour pit for little or no ROI!?"

quato monitor callibration.gifBefore you turn the page though, let us please consider a few points. Going down the digital route, digital image capture, digital image processing, evaluation and digital output, all require important input from yourself and your devices. By this, I mean we need to know information about camera, monitor and output device (inkjet printer) and beyond (CMYK?).You have gone to the trouble to set up your shoot, in studio or on location, product or talent, and used immense skill and experience to capture the best possible images according to your client's brief. This is where you excel, having invested squillions on cameras, lenses, lighting and other gear, you know the look and feel you want. And, I have just spent $5000 plus on a Quad 2.5 GHz Power PC G5, $4000 plus on a 30 inch Cinema HD display and $3000 on an Epson 4800 printer. But the colour is not right on the monitor and the output is unpredictable and you are tearing your hair out. Film was never like this, you scream. I was always able to achieve what I set out to capture.

I will say it again, going down the digital route, digital image capture, digital image processing, evaluation and digital output, all require important input from yourself and your devices (i.e. YOU need to take control). With digital, you are now in an open colour systems environment. Every digital imaging device has its own personality or particular characteristics. We will only achieve accurate colour if we take into account the personal characteristics of each device. Each digital camera captures the same scene differently. Every monitor will display the same image differently and each printer prints the same digital file in a different manner.

To cut to the chase, a CMS utilizes ICC profiles to accurately communicate colour from device to device. This is simplifying the many steps and processes involved, but we can best describe colour management as colour COMMUNICATION. Communication is the key here, as a good ICC based CMS allows accurate predictability of colour and therefore empowers you or your workflow processes to make better decisions concerning colour earlier in your production or workflow process. Now, as colour management simply describes colour, it does not fix bad colour. There is a common misconception by those under-informed about colour management that the colour management system "knows" how a device should reproduce colour - therefore the process of building a profile will make the device produce colour correctly - not true. Colour management will do a great job of reproducing bad colour accurately through the system. Fixing poor originals will always require the skills of a good colour 'operator’. So, that is why you need to take charge of your colour management program, or hand it over to your resident in house expert colour specialist. Good colour management requires these same skill sets.

"But I am all ready using ICC profiles, the colour is still awful, they just do not work!" you exclaim.

Ok, but using an ICC based CMS requires that you play by the rules. Just because you have some ICC profiles does not mean that Misto can wave his magic wand and 'voila' it is puurrfect, with lip smacking kisses to the fingers. ICC profiles can be very easy to make, easy to pass around and are platform independent. Playing by the rules can mean having your device, scanner, camera, monitor or printer, correctly and consistently calibrated. Playing by the rules can also mean paying attention to lighting conditions in your work/studio area and, most importantly, your viewing conditions. Often overlooked by users today are viewing conditions. By this I am talking about a viewing system or 'light box' which is used as a 'reference' for evaluation, assessment and judgment of digital output from photographic and fine art prints to press simulation proofs. Too often, I have been called in to consult on colour issues for users who continue to literally work in the dark room.
We have covered quite some ground here and you may be asking why I have not yet touched on specifics, such as monitor calibration and profiling and/or inkjet printer profiling for photographic quality output.

We will start to investigate the specifics more closely in the next issue of Wide Format Online..

David Crowther is the manager of Chromaticity Australia.
Chromaticity Australia offer colour management training and consulting.

David writes a regular Workshop page for Digital Reproduction magazine.